On the “Fourth day of December, one thousand eight hundred and seventy-one” the Forty-Second Congress of the United States passed “AN ACT to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park.” The world had its first National Park.
I first saw Yellowstone 60 years ago, nearly a century after its founding. It would be another 20 years before I cast my first fly to the eager cutthroats of the Yellowstone River. Even then, I knew this was an extraordinary place.
The park was established “under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior”. One of the responsibilities of the new protector was to “provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit.”
But, that was a different world and we were a different people. Protection of our wildlife and natural resources was seen much differently 140 years ago. We thought nothing of “enhancing” the bounty that nature provided. The American Acclimatization Society was founded in New York the same year Yellowstone was established. Their goal was to introduce “such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting.” The popular movement spread rapidly across the nation. The mission of The Ornithological and Piscatorial Acclimatizing Society of California was to import “all the game birds and fish of the older states and Europe” into California. They first introduced eastern brook trout to California in 1871. Even the fledgling Sierra Club became involved in stocking nonnative rainbow trout into fishless high-mountain lakes in the Sierra Nevada.
In 1874, Dr. Livingston Stone of the U.S. Fish Commission (later the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) accompanied the first transcontinental fish shipment by rail. 35,000 eastern shad fry in milk cans were transported cross-country for planting in the Sacramento River. The trip was such a success that the Fish Commission began to outfit specially built railroad “fish cars” and establish a national hatchery system to propagate fish species around the nation. The fleet of fish cars operated from 1881 to 1947. In the first 20 years of operation, the cars traveled over 2 million miles and distributed more than 72 billion fingerling fish around the country free of charge. Individual states began to emulate that success with their own hatchery systems and even their own fish cars. Pacific salmon and steelhead moved from west to east. Atlantic salmon moved to the west coast. Brook trout, lake trout and rainbow trout found new homes in every corner of the country.
In newly founded Yellowstone National Park, anglers found a true Eden. Fishing opportunities abounded and tourists were astonished at fish numbers unseen in eastern states for decades. The scandal was that some 48% of the Park’s high-mountain lakes and low-nutrient streams remained fishless. Enter the U.S. Fish Commission. The first experimental nonnative fish stocking in Yellowstone began in 1881. Rainbows, browns and Atlantic salmon were planted in Park waters as well as warmwater species such as yellow perch and bass. Lake trout were introduced to Shoshone and Lewis lakes on the Snake River side of the divide.
As Park visitation climbed, fishing on the river and in Yellowstone Lake remained outstanding for the largest concentration of native cutthroat trout anywhere in the world. Introduced brown and rainbow trout soon overwhelmed native populations of cutthroat and bull trout in the Madison and Yellowstone rivers and elsewhere, but the Yellowstone Lake population remained isolated and genetically pure above its protective waterfalls even in the face of prodigious fishing pressure and removal of 818 million eggs to hatcheries to supply new and declining fisheries elsewhere.
Slowly, the reality of over-use of the resource began to catch up with Yellowstone. Catch limits were reduced to 3 fish by 1954 and “fly-fishing only” areas were established. Stocking of native and nonnative fish on top of native populations was halted in 1955 following belated realization of the negative impacts on native stocks. Fishing pressure continued to ebb and flow as did fishing success. Current management practices today focus on native fish species, with some waters even being allowed to return to their historically fishless condition.
The first documented catches of lake trout occurred in Yellowstone Lake in 1994 and a reproducing population was confirmed. The invasive fish were genetically traced to fish from Lewis Lake. The illegal stocking, in the mid-1980s was presumed to have been intentional. Predation by lake trout has caused dramatic declines in native and nonnative fish populations around the West in recent years including stocks in Idaho, Montana, California and Colorado. Yellowstone Lake would be no different.
Lake trout are very efficient, long-lived predators and after 10,000 years of being the top dog in Yellowstone Lake, the native cutthroats had no defense against the voracious invader. Today, after less than two decades of lake trout predation, fewer than 5% of the historic Yellowstone Lake Cutthroat population remains. The U.S. Park Service instituted a netting program in 1995, but lacked adequate information on population dynamics and spawning locations to affect the lake trout population. More than 800,000 lake trout have been removed over nearly two decades, but suppression needs to be dramatically increased to accomplish the goal of reducing the predator population to restore the natives. 220,000 lake trout were removed in 2011 alone. The current lake trout population is still estimated at around 400,000 adult fish.
Like millions before me, when I first fished Yellowstone in the 1960s, I was amazed at the abundance and productivity of the native cutthroat population and the profusion of insect life. I have fished the river many times over the years and never had a bad day. Nobody ever claimed that cutthroats are the most selective of trout. Pretty much any fly with bright colors and a little flash will bring cutts to the surface, but they are enthusiastic and animated on a light tippet. The last time I visited the Park, about a year ago, I made a point to stop at Fishing Bridge near the lake outlet. Over the years I had stopped many times to watch the abundant, large and colorful native fish cruising around the bridge piers and slipping across the rocky bottom. This time I didn’t see a single fish near the bridge. Most of the Yellowstone River within the Park is now off limits to angling and the few fishermen I observed were out more for the exercise and the scenery than for the fishing. For 10,000 years, nature tailored these unique fish to this special place. In a few short decades we have nearly let that slip away. I didn’t have the heart to unsheathe my fly rod.